Helen, you’ve got it all wrong

NS November 18th, 2008

Does Helen Mirren have a problem with women? It would certainly appear so judging by some of her recent remarks. Let me break down her at-times bizarre and misogynistic rantings for ya’ so you can see it for yourself.

First up, her theory that women are culpable for the ‘size zero’ phenomenon, whereby girls and women are pressured to conform to the tall, thin (and preferably big-breasted) beauty ideal that is so predominant in fashion and modern society today. Helen says, “I blame my own sex vehemently on this,” and goes on to reveal that, more specifically, she thinks it’s the women “who run the magazines and women who editorialise and women who make the decisions.”

Helen obviously does not understand how ingrained the beauty myth is in our patriarchal society. In fact, she’s so ingrained in it herself (she admits that she would consider plastic surgery and allows herself to be airbrushed in publicity photo shoots) that she is blinded to its roots. Does she really think it was women who originally propagated extreme thinness as a beauty standard? Why would women, whose bodies are biologically more prone to retain fat, want to do that to themselves? There’s no question that women do buy into this beauty myth, don’t get me wrong. They are just as bad today at preaching these ideals as those who originally proselytized the masses. But it was not women who cooked up this scheme to torment other women. No, the female editors and fashion designers and magazine conglomerates did not come up with this idea on their own, they were merely swept up in the tide of doing whatever it takes to sustain the male gaze, an idea that is sold to women from the time they are born. Look pretty for your daddy, we’re told as tiny tots. Don’t you want to wear a nice dress? we’re asked at age ten with a look of disappointment and concern that persuades us to reluctantly say yes. Boys don’t like fat girls, we’re chastized as teens. Look at how beautiful that woman is! we’re told every time we see images of tall, thin, attractive women. Only the strongest of women survive it without a body complex and a good dose of self-loathing. Most then spend the rest of their lives trying to live up to what they’ve been told men find attractive, even if it’s not true for the men in their own lives. The pressure is so great that even once a partner has been found, women continue to agonise over their appearance and weight for decades.

To be fair to her, at one point in the article, Mirren says a few things that make good sense, such as: “It is not just skinny girls. It is those ads telling you to use foundation and the girl in the ad is a 13 year old and has no make up on whatsoever.The whole thing is based on fantasy. The catwalk clothes may look fabulous on the thin girl but they look ridiculous on a normal slim girl.”

Hooray! I can certainly agree with that, Helen. But then she goes and proves my point when she starts talking about her ‘sex symbol’ status and how it’s been a bit of an albatross for her. She says that she has begun to care about that status less and less as she ages but then contradicts herself by saying at the very end: “I would love to have my chunky legs liposuctioned but I am too frightened.” It’s not the proposition of cosmetic surgery that concerns me (that’s a personal decision) but the way she uses derogatory language in reference to her own body, language that helps propagate the very ‘size zero’ phenomenon that she is supposedly railing against. A woman reading this will think “Hold on. If even Helen Mirren thinks she’s got chunky thighs, what do you call mine — tree trunks?” It totally defeats the purpose of her earlier critical comments of the industry and just reinforces my suspicion that she is, to be blunt, talking out of her ass. She thinks she’s risen above these pressures but she’s so much a part of it that she doesn’t even know it. That is the harsh reality of the magnitude of power these beauty standards we’re contending with hold. It makes it easy to see why it’s so hard to fight.

Next up (and much more disturbingly) we have her comments on rape. In an interview with GQ magazine a couple months ago, Mirren revealed that she had been date raped more than once as a young woman. Horrible, terrible. Full sympathy. But then she says something like this:

“I was (date raped), yes. A couple of times. Not with excessive violence, or being hit, but rather being locked in a room and made to have sex against my will.”

Asked if she reported the incidents, which took place when she was younger, to the police, the 63-year-old replied: “No, you couldn’t do that in those days. It’s such a tricky area, isn’t it? Especially if there is no violence. I mean, look at Mike Tyson. I don’t think he was a rapist.”

Former heavyweight champion Tyson was sentenced to six years in prison in 1992 for raping a Miss Black America beauty contestant in an Indiana hotel room.

Mirren said that if a woman voluntarily ended up in a man’s bedroom, took all her clothes off and engaged in sexual activity in bed with him she had the right to say “no” at the last second, but if the man ignored her it was rape.

But she went on: “I don’t think she can have that man into court under those circumstances. I guess it is one of the many subtle parts of the men/women relationship that has to be negotiated and worked out between them.”

What. The. Fuck.

Rape without violence isn’t really rape? Mike Tyson isn’t a rapist (what do you call a rape conviction then)?? Date rape has to be “negotiated and worked out” between the woman and her attacker??? This is some seriously deluded thinking. How exactly does one go about “working out” one’s rape — do you sit down over tea and explain to the rapist that what he did was rather mean, request that he un-rape you and then go off happy as a lark about the whole thing? Dear god, the mind boggles. She is such a victim of the crap we’ve all been fed over the years (that women could have and should have prevented the situation from ever happening; that men are just wild animals that women ‘provoke’; that rape is a dirty little secret, not a crime that should be prosecuted), it really just makes me feel pity for her. She’s drunk the rape Kool-Aid and is now selling it to us as well. What a shame.

And now, the latest jewel to drop out of her mouth. Again, it’s about rape and this time it’s just as if not more ludicrous than her previous claims. According to Helen, most female jurors in rape cases are just “sexually jealous” of the victim and therefore find in favor of the rapists. I kid you not, she really said this.

“In a rape case, the courts — in defence of a man — would select as many women as they could for the jury, because women go against women.

“Whether in a deep-seated animalistic way, going back billions of years, or from a sense of tribal jealousy or just antagonism, I don’t know, but other women on a rape case would say she was asking for it. The only reason I can think of is that they’re sexually jealous.”

Okay, now she has a point about women being just as likely as men to think the rape victim was ‘asking for it’ in some way due to how she was dressed, what she had drunk or how well she knew her attacker, but I really don’t agree that this is down to sexual jealousy. To imply that women could even fathom being jealous of rape is to say that rape isn’t really a crime, it’s just another form of sex. Rougher, more exciting sex, perhaps, but not real, forced rape. Furthermore, to say that “women going against women” is unusual somehow implies that women usually stand up for one another even when one of us is in the wrong, as if we’re all in some sisterhood of conspiracy against innocent males.

I don’t need to explain why this kind of view is harmful to women and the teeny tiny percentage of rape cases that result in a successful conviction. Luckily, the Solicitor General, Vera Baird, has called out her remarks as “dangerous” at a time when rape victims are being encouraged to come forward. Baird said:

“This is just such an ignorant thing to say, to suggest that the defence or prosecution have any involvement in the selection of a jury. It’s just absurd. First of all, it’s completely factually incorrect. It shows an absolute lack of knowledge about the way the criminal justice system works. I do not know what she is talking about, women hating women. This is a vast generalisation based on nothing, but unfortunately it is likely to have a deterrent effect. It’s such a shame that a person who has a high profile feels qualified and able to put forward this nonsense. It’s capable of being quite dangerous because someone in that position saying that sort of thing, suggesting that she knows more than she actually does. It’s hard enough for victims who often feel guilt and shame to come forward in the first place. But to put forward this false idea that some covert conspiracy exists in the criminal justice system is very ignorant and totally and utterly wrong.”

“We want women to report rape with the confidence that – albeit slowly – conviction rates are getting better. It really is a shame to cast doubt at the edges of what she thinks might not be rape.”

She added: “It is a pity, because she is a much-admired person.”

You took the words right out of my mouth, Vera.

8 Responses to “Helen, you’ve got it all wrong”

  1. A Free Man says:

    Wonderful post. I’ve been asked to right a guest post about “female body image” from a male perspective next week and I didn’t have a clue where to start. I’m dreading it actually because I can’t think of a thing to say that’s not going to piss someone off. Your post has given me something to think about.

  2. Tabitha says:

    Wow, I didn’t realize how backwards Ms. Mirren was. Great post.

  3. NS says:

    Chris, good luck with your guest post, what an interesting (and challenging!) perspective. I hope you link to it from your site when it’s up, I’d love to read it.

    Tabitha — I too had no idea that Mirren had such issues either. I hope someone tells her to keep her trap shut in future.

  4. Courtney says:

    Great post. I’ve always really admired her but this post makes me really question that, especially the part about the rapist and the victim “working things out for themselves” – she can’t be serious! Surely they took her out of context? I hope so!

  5. andrea says:

    quotes from her interview have been on the news here, as well. one female news anchor yesterday on cnn was absolutely ripping her apart and deservedly so. i’ve always respected helen mirren as an actress but i certainly do not respect her views on body image, violence against women and rape. you would think someone in the public eye – a woman who admits to being date raped, no less! – would use her celebrity in a positive way, not in a way that dismisses rape and belittles rape victims.

  6. Helen told me she was just saying that to yank your chain. Biatch.

  7. NS says:

    Courtney — I gave her the benefit of the doubt the first couple times she made remarks like this but stringing them all together it is plain to see that she has some misogynistic tendencies, even if they are completely subconscious. It’s pretty sad, actually, hating and railing against the very things that she is and has experienced. I know so many women who do the same thing without even realising how deeply they’ve been sucked into believing these things about themselves. It’s tragic.

    Andrea — Do you remember what anchor or on what show on CNN? I’d love to see a clip of that.

    Brinkster — Ooh, that feisty woman, always such a jokester! ;)

  8. If possible could you drop me an email offline I have something related to the subject that I can’t post online. I couldn’t see an email address for you anywhere, though it could just be me being thick.